When Principles Trump Pragmatism

When Principles Trump Pragmatism

Last Friday, we learned that John Boehner would be resigning from his post as Speaker of the US House of Representatives at the end of October. Elected to the office in the midst of the Tea Party revolution of 2010, Boehner has endured a significant number of partisan battles in an exceedingly tumultuous era of divided government. Neither wholly reviled nor admired on either side of the ideological aisle, he will be remembered either as a reluctant compromiser or as an unenthusiastic yielder to extremism – depending on which parts of his tenure you remember best.

After joining the House as a representative from Ohio in 1990, Boehner made a name for himself by helping to craft the notorious Contract with America, a 1994 document that enshrined the anti-tax principles that have come to define the Republican Party. Years later, as a committee chairman during the Bush administration, he partnered with liberals in passing pension reforms as well as the No Child Left Behind Act. Most recently, in his role as Speaker, Boehner has clashed both with the Obama administration and the far rightwing members of his own party through seemingly countless battles to pass formerly routine spending bills aimed at keeping the government running.

It hardly comes as a surprise, then, to see that critics from the left and the right alike have regarded Boehner as a punching bag at some point or another. In September 2013, weeks before the first government shutdown since 1996, liberals denounced him for acquiescing to demands from far rightwing members of his party to include budget provisions designed to delay the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, viewing his behavior as “exactly what’s wrong with the GOP —mainstream conservatism’s total capitulation to the extremists.” A year later in December 2014, Fox News commentator Sean Hannity condemned the Speaker for compromising on a bipartisan budget deal to avert another government shutdown, lamenting: “He has no inspiring vision. And to me he is everything that’s wrong with Washington…It seems that he is cowardly.”

These similarly scathing reviews of Boehner’s leadership, rooted in contrasting logic, illuminate the catch-22 that has consumed the Speaker of the House throughout his tenure. Over the years, he has been paralyzed by expectations from his party to lead as a conservative stalwart – expectations he only could have met by not leading at all.

Republican Politics: The Art of the Impossible?

Perhaps the most telling remarks Boehner made in the immediate aftermath of his resignation came in the form of advice to his eventual successor. He offered: “Have the courage to do what you can do… It is easy to have the courage to do what you can’t do.”

Such guidance is reminiscent of words once uttered by Prussian leader Otto von Bismarck, who proclaimed, “Politics is the art of the possible.” As relevant today as it was in 1867, the phrase highlights the necessity of settling for achievable goals rather than pining for unattainable ones. Effective governance requires the resolve to find the middle ground that never ceases to exist, no matter how elusive; it warrants the will to remain tethered to reality, despite the temptation to break free from it. In other words, pragmatic politics must trump principled pipe dreams.

However, as Boehner knows all too well, Republican politics has devolved into the art of the impossible – of championing impassable bills, of grandstanding, of maintaining a strict devotion to unrealistic principles regardless of the consequences. As Boehner explained last week, members of the ultra right “whip people into a frenzy believing that they can accomplish things that they know are never going to happen.”

Behavior that could have once been dismissed as petty conduct among Tea Party rebels has been routinized for many politicians hoping to get elected or re-elected with the Republican brand. Ironic as it may seem for Boehner’s rise and demise as Speaker to have come from the same source – the will of radical Republicans – it is hardly surprising, given the increasingly blurred lines between the GOP establishment and the far right.                         

An Unrelenting Race to the Right

As shocking as threats from ultra conservative members of Congress to defund Planned Parenthood may seem, these calls to action constitute just one aspect of the race to the right driving a wedge in the Republican Party – and one of the few that has truly captured the attention of the mass public. While we may justifiably wear pink to show our imperative support for women’s reproductive rights, we must not remain silent on the less visceral issues that have been eroding the gulf between moderate and radical Republicans for years now.

For instance, let us not forget that it has become commonplace for Republicans to sign a pledge “to oppose any and all tax increases,” even for the most affluent. Similarly, we cannot ignore the fact that railing against an already-implemented health care law remains a prerequisite for running for office as a conservative these days, despite the fifty-plus failed congressional votes to repeal that same law and the multiple Supreme Court decisions upholding its challenged components. These instances of increasingly inflexible conservative idealism obstructing governance matter, too.

The failure of the ultra right to defund Planned Parenthood will serve as the end to just one battle, not any war. Thus, as we await the rise of Speaker Boehner’s successor and tune in to the political theatre of the Republican presidential primaries, we must remember to dismiss unreasonable displays of conservative martyrdom in other instances as vocally as we have this time around.

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